It had in fact struck the independent Pukhtun of several Indian regiments in France that the German jihad leaflets presented an opportunity to enter enemy lines under false pretences in order to spy–an old Pukhtun trick played on British camps during small wars in their tribal areas. In early 1915 some Afridi and Mahsud asked their British officers for permission to attempt the ruse in the German trenches, but were turned down on account of the dangers of being shot at any stage of trying it. One of the men denied permission was a young pre-war Mahsud NCO named Ayub Khan. In December 1914 he had been stationed in British India near Waziristan with his regiment the 124th Baluchis, and his Mahsud company had been ordered to sail for France as casualty replacements for the 129th Baluchis. Twenty-two of his company’s Mahsud had straightaway deserted to dodge the overseas draft, but Ayub Khan had declined to go with them, in itself an indication of professional commitment. Indeed, once his British officers had discovered the desertions, Ayub Khan had sworn to them, according to the 124th Baluchis’ regimental history, ‘he would either die in France or return an Indian officer’. In France in early 1915, Ayub Khan joined the 129th under the command of their pre-war officer Harold Lewis. The two got on well as Ayub Khan tried to impress for a promotion, although Lewis had drawn a line at his request to desert to spy. But Ayub Khan made up his own mind to do so, vanishing from the 129th’s trenches in the early morning darkness of 22 June. At midnight that day he dropped back in over the parapet, very tired, and refusing to give Lewis any account of his escapade until he had got some sleep.
On waking he told Lewis where he had been. ‘I went up to the German wire, lay down, and slept,’ Ayub Khan began. ‘As dawn broke I stood up, raised my hands and called out “Musalman”.’ He was welcomed into the German line, assumed to be a deserter; ‘I was treated well, and the men in the trenches gave me cigarettes.’ He was then taken four miles to the rear on a light railway, to the German-occupied French town of Marquillies. ‘I waited outside a big office. At length I was called inside and interrogated by a Staff Officer through the medium of an officer who spoke very bad Hindustani.’ Following questions about the BEF, the interrogating staff officer–the Prussian Generalleutnant Kurt von dem Borne–told Ayub Khan ‘how wrong it was for Mussalmans to fight against the allies of Turkey’, and asked why he had deserted. ‘I am of an independent race,’ Ayub Khan replied, ‘I am not an Indian. I do not see why I should daily risk my life.’ He added there were twenty more Mahsud of the 129th Baluchis who felt the same. ‘We all want to desert, but we dared not come over together lest we should be mistaken for a raiding party and be fired on and killed. We decided that I should come alone and arrange matters.’ Von dem Borne offered Ayub Khan 20 marks for each of the other twenty Mahsud, equivalent to 300 rupees in total, if he returned to the Indian trenches and brought them over to the Germans. Ayub Khan struck the deal, agreeing a time and place for the mass desertion, and was taken by motor car to the German front line to crawl back to the 129th Baluchis. The morning of his return to the regiment, Ayub Khan showed no inclination of sticking to his side of the bargain with von dem Borne. Rather, he poured out to Lewis every scrap of military intelligence he could. He had spent his time with the Germans making a mental note of all he saw, so he was able to report a range of information, of a kind considered valuable on the western front: German regimental numbers he had seen on epaulettes; the technical details of German trench construction down to the design of parapets, machine gun nests and dug-outs; and the layout behind the German trenches, including ammunition dumps and the whereabouts of von dem Borne’s headquarters.
Word of Ayub Khan’s story soon reached James Willcocks and he went up to the 129th’s trenches to hear it from the man himself. ‘Ayub Khan carried his life in his hand,’ Willcocks reflected, ‘for had his actions caused one doubt of any kind among his captors he would assuredly have been shot.’ Yet Willcocks still tested the young Mahsud NCO’s word by directing the Indian Corps’ artillery to fire on one of the spots he had identified as an ammunition dump. Willcocks took the ensuing ‘very considerable explosion’ as the proof he needed, and spontaneously gave Ayub Khan 300 rupees to match von dem Borne’s offer, along with a special promotion in the field to a higher grade of NCO. He also directed that a large sign be put up above the 129th Baluchis’ trenches saying ‘The Traitor Has Been Shot’. This was a ruse ‘to notify the Hun that the treachery had been discovered’, and therefore to pre-empt any shelling of the regiment’s line by the Germans ‘in a fit of pique if they felt tricked’.
Lewis felt that Ayub Khan’s solo spying surpassed the bravery even of the 129th’s Punjabi Muslim machine gunner Khudadad Khan, the first Indian soldier to win the Victoria Cross. For Lewis, Ayub Khan’s devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy was unique. John Hannyngton, the 129th Baluchis’ commanding officer, and Willcocks agreed: they recommended Ayub Khan for a VC. The BEF authorities, however, rejected the recommendation and forbade Ayub Khan’s story from going public under a censorship ban. Their concern was that self-appointment as a spy was no example to the British soldier, who should not be encouraged to do the same.
11 February 2019
Ayub Khan, Fake Deserter Spy Hero
From Army of Empire: The Untold Story of the Indian Army in World War I, by George Morton-Jack (Basic Books, 2018), Kindle pp. 248-251: